Tuesday, April 1, 2008

1.2 No I in Meme: Culture (White People are White)

Though it is a step further away from my basic focus on social systems and technology, I would be remiss in my duties as a lister-of-social-structures if I did not list the most pervasive and unconscious structure of all: culture.

I write this entry with a mild, throbbing pain in my left Heresy Lobe, an old sports injury incurred from climbing too many times up onto my
old soapbox about individualism in American culture. I threw a tarp over it when I graduated from grad school, but I am formally breaking out my carnie barker voice and bowtie as we speak.
What, you ask, is my hangup about individualism and American culture? (Watch my friends dive into bushes and roll off screen as I respond.) Recall that my basic point here is that structure determines behavior: it affects our actions, belief systems, perception of ourselves, and our conception of our options in the world. If you know about the structure, you have a little more free will; if you don't, you run a high risk of unthinkingly incorporating its mandates.

We Americans are particularly susceptible to this, and particularly blind to that susceptibility. Perhaps you have heard the joke:

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?
A: American!
The USA hosts one of the most geographically and linguistically isolated urban cultures in the world. That makes us Americans very different than (for example) European, Latin American or Asian cultures when it comes down to knowing that we have a culture at all. Even when we do travel, we rarely stay long or become fluent in the local language, and thus we miss volumes about what culture really is: arbitrary, powerful, silly or objectionable. We are convinced that everything we do as Americans is "just human nature" or "the same all over the world."

Living overseas for a year is a great way to recognize that what you are, and how you do things, is not "the default way." Most of us, though, can discover this bias in ourselves from our desk chairs. Give it a shot: if you are Black, say out loud "I am Black." If you're Chinese, Japanese or Korean, say so. If you are White, say "I am White."

So, the first two may come easily. But most White people will become very uncomfortable openly stating we are White. To us, we are not White: we are
normal. We do not behave like White people; we behave normally, while Black people behave like black people and Japanese people behave like Asians.
I, the writer of this blog, am a White American person, and mostly I behave just like one. I am a consumer, I'm highly innovative, very individualistic, stuffy about sex, outgoing; I wait patiently in lines; I have a large "personal space" envelope, and get antsy when all but specific people touch me at all but agreed-upon times; I am more standoffish and disingenuous than the most uptight Latin American, and my friendships are usually shallower and more transient than the most cynical European (though I am working hard to shake those two).

Are you a White American? In what ways do you behave just like a White American, and in what ways do you behave differently? Does this whole section make you wince and hold your breath? If so, why?

We Americans have, by and large, "drunk the Kool-Aid" of American culture, and so we take the nourishment and the carcinogens together and call them "humanity." We are highly susceptible to the negative societal and psychological side-effects of our quirks. Where we are individualistic by culture, we fall prey to loneliness or rudeness; where we are materialistic, we fall prey to the existential vacuum. Etc etc.
The question of "what is human nature" vs "what is American culture" has always fascinated me, and so I learned some foreign languages, spent a non-small portion of my life living in third-world countries, and focused my undergraduate thesis on social-cultural constructs and how they affect self-perception and relationships.** I only suggest you also do this if you, too, want to contract the Tourette's Syndrome-esque tendency to rant uncontrollably. If you would instead prefer a more moderate and salmonella-free immersion in the topic of the great spectrum of cultural structures, I strongly recommend the book American Cultural Patterns. It was written some 20 years ago to prepare first-time Peace Corps workers for culture shock. It is short and highly readable and will completely mess up your mind. It is one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read; I can't go five pages without bolting up from my chair to discuss it with someone.
Allowing yourself to question your own deep, foundational assumptions about human beings, relationships, success, time, reason and language can be a seriously unsettling experience. It can lead to cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that arises from a stark contradiction between what one believes to be so and what appears to be true; human beings are typically so extremely averse to that discomfort that they will usually become angry, or contstruct elaborate and transparent untruths, to avoid feeling it (a fascinating cognitive bias which I'll talk about sometime later).
This cognitive dissonance is sometimes fun for insensitve counterculturalists like to me to play with...

Next: >> I thought I could rant about this in one entry, but I was oh so very wrong. >>

**My web page is really really outdated. It's going to stay like that for a while.